Garett Lake could tell Thunder Bay Border Cat pitcher Lucas Reid was off. When the Eau Claire designated hitter got the count up to 3-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning, he knew he’d either swing at his desired pitch or watch it go by.
“He kind of threw the pitch I was hunting,” Lake said. “I put a barrel on it and got it in the jet stream.”
With one swing of the bat, the Pima Community College Aztec helped the Eau Claire Express eliminate a Border Cat lead for a second time in the game. He hit a two-run shot over the tall section of the right field wall, and Nick Lopez followed up with a pair of insurance runs to lift the Express to a 9-6 victory and extend their winning streak to four Sunday afternoon.
“I knew and I think the boys knew that we weren’t going to just roll over,” Lake said.
Eau Claire needed some heroics after losing a 5-3 lead in the top of the frame. Express reliever Ethan Swanson loaded the bases with one out, setting up a Anthony Galati sacrifice fly to cut the lead to one. A batter later, Andrew Shebloski hit a two-run single to give Thunder Bay a 6-5 advantage.
Former Eau Claire Memorial Old Abe Tanner Kohlhepp made his debut on the mound for the Express, a highly anticipated return to regular action for the now-Tennessee Volunteer. He saw limited action in his first season in Knoxville, getting only four innings of work.
“It feels good to be back,” Kohlhepp said. “I’m here so I can get some innings. It’s good to finally get back out there again.”
If there was any rust, he didn’t show it. He went four and two thirds innings in the start, allowing only two runs, four hits and a walk while striking out three.
“I felt good,” Kohlhepp said. “I felt locked in.”
The entire afternoon was a testament to Eau Claire’s perseverance. When the Border Cats threw a punch, the Express were sure to fight back.
Lopez opened the scoring for Eau Claire in the first after Spencer Myers and Matt Bottcher got on base with a pair of singles. He hit a third straight one-bagger to score Myers from second.
Thunder Bay tied the game in the top of the second when Jordan Larson went home on a wild pitch, but Eau Claire responded to take the lead back on an unusual play in the bottom of the frame. Sam Stonskas got caught in a pickle between first and second and with the defense occupied, David LaManna was able to make it home safely from third.
The Border Cats’ second equalizer came off the bat of Kohlhepp’s final adversary of the day. Express manager Dale Varsho came out to the mound to check in on Kohlhepp after he gave up a single with two outs in the fifth. Kohlhepp waived him off, but then gave up a double to Karsten Vasquez that scored Nate Soriano.
“I left that pitch up a little bit,” Kohlhepp said.
The sixth inning saw both teams claim the lead, ending with the 5-3 Eau Claire advantage that latest until the eighth. Galati scored the lone run of the frame for the Border Cats on a solo shot to right, while the Express scored on a LaManna triple, an error on the Thunder Bay shortstop and a wild pitch.
Sam Kohnle opened the rally in the bottom of the eighth for the Express, getting on with a single. After getting to second on a putout, he was able to trot the rest of the way around the bases thanks to Lake.
Two batters later, Myers walked and then Bottcher singled, with both able to advance an additional base thanks to Thunder Bay’s decision to throw across the diamond to third. That set up Lopez to drive in them both.
Brannon Jordan entered the game in the ninth and sent the Border Cat batters down in order for the save.
The Express’ winning streak, which includes victories against subdivision foes La Crosse, Waterloo and Thunder Bay, has helped the team shoot up up the Great Plains East standings the last few days. On Saturday Eau Claire moved into a tie with the Loggers for third. After Sunday, the team is tied with the Bucks and Loggers for second at 6-7 and is sitting just a game behind subdivision leader Duluth.
“’Roll Trains’ is kind of the thing going with all of the boys right now,” Lake said. “Once they keep coming they start stockpiling on. As a team we’re meshing together well.”
The Express conclude their two-game series with the Border Cats tonight at 6:35 p.m. before heading off on a three-day road trip to Willmar and Mankato.
Express 9, Border Cats 6
Thunder Bay 010 011 030 — 6 7 3
Eau Claire 110 003 04x — 9 12 0
WP: Ethan Swanson (3 IP, 3 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 1 K). LP: Lucas Reid (2 IP, 2 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 1 K). Leading hitters — Thunder Bay: Anthony Galati 1-2 (2 RBI, R), Andrew Shebloski 1-4 (2 RBI). Eau Claire: Nick Lopez 3-5 (3 RBI), Garett Lake 1-3 (HR, 2 RBI, 2 R), David LaManna 2-3 (RBI, 2 R).